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Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse

Posted by acdtest on March 8, 2003

Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse

aving gone without sleep all night, and unable to fall asleep the following day (yesterday), I went surfing desperately through the few TV channels left me (my cable company finally caught on that, through an oversight on their part, they were providing me way more channels than I was paying for) trying to find something, anything, at least halfway not idiotic to pass the time, and perhaps lull me to sleep. And — mirabile dictu! — I happened into the opening (on PBS’s WNYE) of Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse, a superb, Oscar-nominated (1997), almost-two-hour-long 1996 documentary film unknown to me tracing the career of the celebrated New York City Ballet prima ballerina, and narrated on-camera by the then 51-year-old Miss Farrell herself.

Even though she’s 51 and afflicted with arthritis (most prominently apparent in her hands), one’s attention is arrested immediately by the still beautiful face, and by an astonishingly lithe, tall, and elegantly willowy figure that would lead one instantly to conclude that this woman could be nothing other than a great ballerina even were one totally ignorant of just who Suzanne Farrell might be.

And what a story she has to tell! In a manner almost brutally frank, Miss Farrell begins by leading the viewer through her first days as tomboy Roberta Sue Ficker, born 1945 in Cincinnati, where she began ballet studies at age twelve at the city’s Conservatory of Music, and there showed such precocity in her development she was accepted, in 1960 at age fifteen, at the legendary George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. A year later, at Balanchine’s own invitation, she joined him at the New York City Ballet where, after just two years, and through one of those classic happy accidents (i.e., happy for the newcomer), she replaced the then reigning prima ballerina (who had become incapacitated by virtue of becoming pregnant) in the prima role in the new, and never-before-performed Stravinsky-Balanchine ballet, Movements for Piano and Orchestra.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And quite a remarkable history it is, too. At this remove, one is almost tempted to say it was surely a case of life imitating art so uncannily does it seem to parallel in certain telling respects the story told in that now-classic 1948 epic British film on the ballet life, The Red Shoes. But this story is, if anything, even more engrossing, and Miss Farrell’s affecting, and at times painful, narration is extended and made richer and more vivid by the candid commentary of several other of the leading players, most of them dancers themselves, as well as by a generous measure of archival film footage of a number of rehearsals with Balanchine himself (he died in 1983), and of actual performances.

If this stunning documentary ever plays at a PBS station near you, ink it into your day’s schedule. Or better yet, if you’ve the equipment, buy the VHS or DVD (the boxing for both the VHS and DVD editions erroneously indicates 1990 as the date of the film, but the film is copyrighted 1996). It will provide you two of the most worthwhile hours you’ll ever spend in front of the tube.

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The Hound Of The Baskervilles

Posted by acdtest on January 20, 2003

The Hound Of The Baskervilles — No, Really

watched the PBS Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles last night. Well, it was sort of like Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. OK, a little like Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. I mean, it did retain the title, most of the incidents, and almost all the characters. Against that, however, the writer and producer of this adaptation felt the need to invent new incidents (one of which — I kid you not — they lifted straight from the 1939 Hollywood movie version of the Hound), and pretty much rob the characters of all their Doylesque charm. In short, the production was thoroughly vapid with nothing to recommend it except the (presumably) Devonshire locations which were appropriately Dartmoory-foggy, and deliciously and darkly spooky.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the quintessential Sherlock Holmes tale. It has, in a single novella-length story, just about everything that makes the tales of the Sherlockian canon so magical: A rich 19th-century-England ambience, a nifty puzzle mystery to solve with lots of opportunity for demonstrations of Holmes’s deductive reasoning (this tale — the only one in the canon — with a generous dollop of the supernatural added), great plotting and dialogue, wonderfully weird or quirky secondary characters (that is, weird or quirky by 19th century standards), and of course Holmes and Watson and their relationship, the centerpiece of all the tales.

With all that going for it, one would imagine an adaptor would by and large have it made, and need but choose the right actors for the parts, make a few dialogue adjustments and additions, do some small adjusting and rearranging of scene details, and Voilà!; a first-rate and engaging adaptation.

That’s what one would imagine, but apparently not these adaptors. These adaptors saw fit, for instance, to make the famously tall, slender, and hawk-faced Holmes a man of average height and build, and pleasant of countenance (and had him doing his cocaine thing in situations in which Holmes wouldn’t even think of shooting up); Watson, the consummately solid bourgeois Englishman, a weaselly-looking wisp of a man who would be better cast as one of Doyle’s villains; and the relationship between the two a relationship of equals rather than the endearing master and acolyte of the original.

Fit also saw these adaptors to chuck the signature opening Baker Street scene which sets the tone and provides the jumping off place for this tale as it does for most of the tales, and introduce in its place a concocted prologue that not only does nothing to enhance either story or suspense, but blunts the very strangeness that sets this tale apart from all others in the canon.

I could go on, but simply don’t have the heart for it. There was so much fundamentally wrong with this production that minute by minute one fought the urge to just switch it off by hoping, hope against hope, that the next scene would finally put things back on track, and in some way redeem what had gone before.

Never happened.

Too bad — and coming from a Brit crew, unforgivable.

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Revisiting Godot

Posted by acdtest on January 3, 2003

Revisiting Godot

t’s been ages since I last saw a stage production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and so it was with some measure of excited anticipation that I looked forward to PBS’s airing of the Michael Lindsay-Hogg film adaptation of the play on the new PBS series Stage On Screen which I saw last night after tuning in some ten minutes late, the fault of a stopped clock that shouldn’t have been. And what a first-rate realization it was, too. Oh, there was some careless thinking involved in the mise en scène (too busy and populated), and some equally careless thinking involved with some of the camera viewpoints (too many medium closeups and medium shots, and not nearly enough establishing shots — in this case establishing the intimate identity of the physical, emotional, and spiritual landscapes, an identity crucial to this play), but these are mere quibbles.* The performances by all were stellar, and it was especially gratifying to hear the lines of the two protagonists, Vladimir (Barry McGovern) and Estragon (Johnny Murphy), spoken in Irish-inflected English as the inflection gives special point and poignancy to the vaudevillian character of many of the exchanges.

The play itself is nothing short of a prodigy. Easily one of the most profound and suggestive plays of the 20th century, and among the most profound and suggestive ever. Right up there with Shakespeare’s best in that regard. The dialogue is a marvel as well, and contains worlds in its concise, tightly coiled lines; lines that pierce heart, mind, and soul as with daggers even as they entertain. A neat trick, that, and a Beckettean specialty.

Volumes could be written on analyses of Godot, and volumes already have (a Google search on the play’s title turned up some 33,600 entries). I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve never read an analysis of the play. I don’t yet know it well enough for that, and have still to reach my own conclusions on many points before reading the conclusions of others better qualified. In talking with some acquaintances about the play, however, it seems the focal point for them all is Lucky’s “think” of Act I. I’ll grant it’s one helluva think, but what I found so marvelous about it seems to have passed by (or over) most, their concern being the deciphering of the think’s actual content, which to my way of thinking (sorry!) misses the think’s point, its point being — by way of savage (but hilarious) parodying of form (academic and “learned” discourse) and substance (theology, philosophy, politics, and science) resolving to word-salad gibberish — the futility of man’s resort to and reliance on faith and reason to make sense of and give meaning to an otherwise irrational and meaningless universe.

There’s a key to understanding this play, I think, and that key is an understanding of the characters Pozzo and Lucky (wonderfully played in this production by Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan, respectively), and their part in this tragicomedy. Just who are they, and what are they doing there? Estragon (in Act II) thinks Pozzo might have been Godot himself. Vladimir dismisses the suggestion immediately, but then, in rapid stages, becomes less and less sure. For my part, Pozzo and Lucky seem a shared vision vouchsafed by Whatever to Vladimir and Estragon, and to us as well; a vision of the reality of what Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for as it really is, as opposed to what they’re expecting it to be. Pozzo as Godot incarnate, and Lucky as the incarnate whole of mankind that is Vladimir and Estragon — and us. Part (but only part) of my reason for reaching that conclusion is that Beckett puts into the mouth of Pozzo (in Act II) the most searing lines in all of Godot, and the most horrific ever uttered by any character in any play whatsoever:

(Spoken to Vladimir in a fury) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he [Lucky] went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer, and more to himself) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Take particular note of the “they”.

That simultaneously searing and chilling speech is the play’s climax, its crisis, after which Pozzo and Lucky exit the tragicomedy, and it’s left to Vladimir to complete the horrific image for himself while Estragon sleeps:

(Vladimir looks at Estragon sleeping) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at the sleeping Estragon) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause) I can’t go on!

But he will. He’s seen a glimmer of the appalling truth; more than is seen by most, but, still, it’s insufficient to murder hope (incarnate in the figure of the young boy who is Godot’s messenger). He will go on, as will Estragon. Godot hasn’t come today, but he’ll come tomorrow. And when he does, they’ll be there to meet him and so be saved. This they believe because they can’t believe otherwise and still go on.

Nor can we.

*I subsequently saw this production for the second time, and was struck by two rather serious flaws missed on first viewing (because unconsciously “corrected” by me): Pozzo’s Act II exit speech, and Vladimir’s following reflection/ epiphany — critical moments in the play. Both disregarded Beckett’s stage directions, and in consequence not only failed of their full effect and impact, but changed their meaning. Extraordinary that the disregarding was permitted.

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